It is not a surprise that one of the highest courts in the hierarchy has passed a judgment which has set off a storm in the political sphere. We can add the verdict to the stock of grievances underneath which this country has been crushed. The “landmark” decisions made by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in the past have indeed set precedents, however, they are not the best of examples that have came out of the Court. For these include a judicial murder and removal of democratically elected prime ministers belonging to the Pakistan People’s Party. But it is not the party which encouraged the judges to make such poor decisions; the judiciary has been mishandled, at other times, abused by the country’s leaders. Sometimes it is brutal dictators who authorize the death penalty of renowned political leaders, like the illegal execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto or civilian leaderships whose hunger for power has forced them to breach the sanctity of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has been a centre of these conflicting interests, where judges are in a constant motion, swaying from one party to another or sometimes grabbing on to only one of them, tightly.

The independence of the judiciary has been a talking point in Pakistan for years, after witnessing a series of notorious decisions made by previous judges, the autonomy of the judicial system has come under speculation. Subsequent to the passing of the Panama verdict, the status of the institution as an “independent” organ seems nominal. During the reign of the Pakistan People’s Party from 2008- 2013, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary displayed extraordinary strength, the flamboyant judge took up multiple Suo Moto actions against the party and dismissed the country’s prominent democratically elected Prime Minister. As Pakistanis looked on, one of their chosen representatives were sacked from their office on the basis of decisions made by politically impassioned judges. The Supreme Court has been oddly silent since the retirement of the former Chief Justice, judicial activism has dropped, the robust panel has been replaced with a less vocal bench. The panel continues to change, however, in a place where legal reasoning succumbs to the ruling party’s hegemonic power.

When we read the first page of the Panama judgment, which opens with a charismatic yet powerful quote from the renowned French novelist Honore de Balzac in Mario Puzo's book The Godfather, “Behind every great fortune is a crime”. We were a little surprised, as judgments in Pakistan normally start with either verses from the Quran or the sayings of the Holy Prophet, and if a judge does not possess a literary mind, he will get right to the point, penning down a rather dry verdict. In the Panama case, the bewildering remarks on the front page would trigger excitement in someone who has very little knowledge of the legal opinions that are compiled together under a very contentious heading. Seemingly the quote would force them to believe that the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been finally shown the exit door. The famous line is followed by an elaborate version in French, which solidifies one’s belief that the party in question is indeed guilty. But here is where it gets interesting, the epigraph of the judgment is also the epigraph of the book, it seems that our honourable judges have authored a new version of Puzo’s novel, this time the protagonist is not fictional nor his story a fabrication, but a real man who seems to have “properly executed” his crime. Nonetheless, this excerpt from a celebrated book has created ambiguity, confusion and at some point frustration, as it was meant to justify the verdict, which it did and did not. Surprisingly, the quotation hinted a temporal release of an infamous character.

Among the panel of five, two judges of the Supreme Court dissented, namely Justice Asif Khosa, the man who inserted the Balzac quote and Justice Gulzar Ahmed. They declared the Prime Minister as illegitimate, calling for his disqualification, while the other three ordered the formation of a Joint Investigative Team (JIT) to further dig deep into the matter and provide answers to some unanswered questions.

Since the verdict was released, most of the analysts have been reading and re-reading the contents of the judgment on their talk-shows, pondering over different paragraphs, trying hard to figure out the intention of the Supreme Court judges behind the established words. The more they examine the matter the more perplexed they look, for almost all of the judges in their respected opinions perceive the Prime Minister as unqualified to rule. However, this perception based on the available evidence led two of the judges to convert their opinions into declarations to oust the PM, while the other three sought for further investigations, remarkably, on the same evidence. This is the complicated part; it is in our knowledge that the Supreme Court was provided with enough proof to remove the PM, the impaling remarks of the two dissenting judges creates that picture in our minds but the verdict does not. It is hard to tell who the winner and the loser is; the judgment has left many of us mystified.

If we emphasis on The Godfather quote there seems to be some hidden sentiments, emotions that the Supreme Court judges were not able to express verbally. We can sense some displeasure towards the Sharifs surreptitious wealth as well as a deep admiration for the tactics they adopted to cover up their enormous fortune. On the basis of that theme, which is pursued by a very thought provoking legal story, they seem to encapsulate the beliefs of the judges who were conscious of the massive corruption the Sharifs have committed, yet were reluctant to convict them. By implanting the sayings and that too on the operating page, are the judges trying to prove their sincerity in the case to avoid public backlash? Because it has long been seen and believed that the Supreme Court has always held back from penalizing the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), an assertion often made by lawyers and judges in the legal world.

If interpreted correctly, the judgment contains a strong message, directed at the opposition and the ruling party; that the judges are aware of the defendants’ wrongdoings but do not have the strength to counter the powerful perpetrators. But one can also sense some eagerness from the part of the judges to distance themselves from the popular belief about the Supreme Court having a soft corner for the PML-N, especially when they included two more departments to the Joint Investigative Team, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence (MI), basing their confidence on the independence of the institutions from the Sharif family’s vast dominion.

Multiple theories can be extracted from these puzzling pieces of paper. What is interesting is that the alleged “verdict” seems incomplete. Knowing full well that the opposition and the public would react with anger and disdain, which could create unrest in the country, the Supreme Court, nevertheless, decided to save the PM by penning down a very provocative judgment. Have the judges left the final word to the people? By using selective language, do the judges also want the Sharifs to be held accountable, but in a way that would not land them in a direct conflict with the PML-N? For what I can allege, the Court has pulled itself back from the storm it has brewed.

Apart from the appalling verdict, what is the purpose of establishing a special investigative team when the opposition supplied ample amount of evidence? Do judges doubt their own instincts or were they facing some kind of external pressure? Many suspect that the Supreme Court is merely carrying on its long tradition of keeping the PML-N in power. A theory which is believed to be the base upon which the JIT is created, renowned analyst and political scientist Farrukh Saleem claims in his piece The Judgment,  “The only defence against the JIT: a policy of strategic delay.”

Does this mean that we are going to hear more fables from multiple storytellers for a brief period of time until the general elections are right around the corner? For what we know, the JIT does not have a legal standing, I hope we are proven wrong. For the time being, it is important to highlight the positive effects the decision would have had on Pakistan, had it penalized one of the country’s most powerful aristocrats.       

For once the country would have breathed a sigh of relief. Some would have been disappointed but many would have rejoiced the exemplary sentencing of a family accused of a crime that has been prevalent in our society for decades would have delegitimized every type of fraudulent conduct in the country. The judges would have been lauded for their methodological approach to the Panama case. The procedural dismissal of a democratically elected leader on the basis of a serious offense, and not because they merely failed to follow Court orders, would have strengthened Pakistan’s fledgling democracy. However, his resignation would still be systematic if the JIT successfully gathers further proof against the PM and present it to the court. Mr Nawaz Sharif’s expulsion from power through a civilian institution and not via a military coup would also be a first for him. Unlike his political counterpart who was sacked from his office on weak allegations, Mr. Sharif would have been the first prime functionary of his party and government to be evicted with a legitimate reason. There is a possibility that the conviction of a high profile individual might have revived Pakistan’s crippling judiciary, it would have certainly regained the public’s confidence and trust as a representative of their legal rights, conveying a message to the people that no individual is above the law. The elections would have been clean and untainted, the voters would not have had to fear any reprisal from political parties who have used oppressive methods to maneuver the election in their favour.

However, sometimes we cannot help but sympathise with our judges. It is easy for commoners to allege that they have been betrayed by the system, but if we recall the past few months, the Supreme Court had become the focal point of political wrath. The judges had no option but to contain the simmering tensions between the government and the opposition, which also took a toll on one of the judge’s health. However, any judge up in the hierarchy knows that they will inevitably be faced with a situation that they cannot easily escape, and that they will be caught between choices and opinions that might not match theirs. But there are times when the fate of the whole nation rests upon them; during these moments public interest should be prioritized over self-interest. The fear of humiliation and degradation from the government, not to mention the horrific memories of 1997 mob attack by PML-N supporters might have made our judges uneasy, but they had enough courage to defy whatever evidence the Sharif family was able to present.

The ambiguous Panama judgment has provided some relief to the politically anxious Sharifs, but never have they ever been in a more vulnerable position before. The wounded yet undeterred Prime Minister has many loyalists who are preventing his fall, clinging on to his seat and not uttering defeat is the only way to make room for his successor, which is presumably his daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, even if it means his battle losing his moral authority in the process. As mentioned by Barrister Babar Sattar  in his excellent article, The Panama Verdict

“The PML-N’s assessment is that the damage inflicted by the ignominy brought along by Panama won’t be fatal. And so long as an injured Nawaz Sharif lives to fight the 2018 election, moral bankruptcy will be compensated by electoral success.”

If electoral success is what the Sharifs are looking forward to, judging by the current political upheaval, it is difficult to predict such an achievement. There is still ample amount of time left till the next elections. With every passing day something or the other pops up on the news that alters perceptions and opinions, which further affects the PML-N’s already fractured reputation. Sometimes maintaining morality is necessary to keep one in power, we cannot simply chuck out morality from the picture, for the lack thereof leads to defeat. The Pakistan Supreme Court might have temporarily averted the disaster that was looming over the ruling party, but before letting it go, it has inflicted the PML-N with a deep wound. We still do not know what the outcome of the case will be, but what we do know is that Panama riddle remains unsolved.